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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

It’s Good Work If You Can Get It

October 4, 2023

“Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” – Theodore Roosevelt.

ROME— My first paying job was as a 12 years old. I mowed the lawns of my neighbors. Growing up in the house of a widowed single mom who was a public school art teacher, it was clear that if I was going to have any money to do or buy anything I was going to have to earn it myself. We owned a big wheel Yazoo lawnmower that felt as heavy as a Volkswagen, and I pushed it around the streets of our neighborhood, from house to house, earning $10.00 per yard. That was big money back then. It was enough to buy two albums at the record store with some money left over for candy or a hamburger.

When I was 14 years old I worked as a summer janitor at my school stripping and waxing floors. That fall, after I turned 15, I got my first tax-paying job as a radio station disc jockey making $2.50 per hour and kept that job all through high school working 40 hours a week on the 7pm-midnight shift and some weekends. I never looked at it as work. I considered it an honor and a privilege and— had I had any money— would have paid someone to let me spin records on a 100,000-watt FM station that covered a large part of the South Mississippi listening area.

During my first attempt at college, I worked on a construction crew in the summer installing pink fiberglass insulation into newly constructed attics and under the floorboards of houses. Another summer I worked for my brother in the landscaping business. Actually, I worked for him twice. He fired me both times.

After flunking out of college I accidentally landed into what would become my dream job and life’s work— the restaurant business. I fell in love with it instantly. I couldn’t get enough. I managed a deli during the day and waited tables at night. After straightening out my life I got back into school and put my college career on the fast track taking 18 and 21 hours per semester while working fulltime waiting tables. It never felt like work. I knew I wanted to open a restaurant one day and my Hotel and Restaurant Administration studies at school and my restaurant job were both paths that would lead me to that end goal. I had tunnel vision in the best and most popular sense.

I love restaurants. It’s never seemed like work. It’s just what I love to do. Mowing yards, installing insulation, and laying sod on a landscaping crew is work. Hard work. Even in the early days after opening my first restaurant and working 90 hours a week in the kitchen it never seemed like work. I owned my own business. I felt privileged and honored to be a restaurant owner. It wasn’t about the money. It couldn’t have been. I was paying myself $250.00 per week (half of what I had been making waiting tables). It wasn’t about my luxurious lifestyle either. I lived in a one-room apartment above a garage until I was 30-years old. It was about being blessed to be what I believe I was born to be— a restaurateur.

I’ve been fortunate to do that work ever since. It’s my 42nd year in the business and my 36th as an owner of restaurants. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was 19. I write this column on an airplane between Rome and Catania, Sicily. Tomorrow I’ll meet up with 25 Americans who have trusted nine days and eight nights of their vacation time with me. Hosting tours of Americans in Europe is also work. Many don’t believe that when I say, “I’m headed over to Italy to work for the next six weeks.”

Some say, “Sure, you’re going to ‘work’ over there,” in a sarcastic tone. Though those who have traveled with me know a different story. It’s seven 14-hour days with a half-day break in the middle and one day off until the next group arrives. It’s work. But, like the restaurants, it’s work that I love.

The restaurant career I planned. This travel-hosting gig happened purely by chance. I offered to take a small group to Tuscany on what would have been a one-and-done, but more people kept asking to go on trips, and the people who went on the early trips started asking, “Where are we going next?” so we did Venice-Bologna-Milan and then Rome-Amalfi-Naples several times while still hosting groups in Tuscany. Since then, I’ve led groups through Spain a few times and Holland-Belgium this past spring.

This will be the first group I have led through Sicily. I have four groups in Tuscany immediately afterwards winding up with my final group which is compiled of all my cousins from the Washington D.C. area and California which should be a blast. We’ll do Spain again next spring and will end up with a group in England-Scotland.

In all, by the end of April next year I will have led and hosted over 1,000 people on tours in the last seven years. (With two years off during Covid). It’s work, but if you’ve got to work somewhere, this ain’t a bad place to do it.

What enables me to do my second love— hosting Americans in Europe— are the 450 team members that hold down the fort at my first love. In the past six months we have compiled the best management team and leadership crew in our 36-year history. I gained a renewed passion for our restaurants over the past year and have dedicated even more of my time to making them the best they can be. Luckily texts, emails, Zoom meetings, group texts, cameras in our kitchens, and our software programs allow all-access all of the time. We are firing on all cylinders these days and I am blessed to have the leadership we have in place.

Most of the guests in my first group this fall have already landed in Sicily and are hanging out shaking off jet lag and waiting for me to land so we can start our next adventure which will begin tomorrow at noon. We’ll cover a lot of ground in Sicily over the next nine days. The cool thing about this group is that all have traveled with me before. For some it will be their sixth trip with me. There are two who were on the very first Tucany tour I hosted seven years ago. At this point we’re all friends traveling together. I love that.

I type this on my 62nd birthday a few hundred miles above the Mediterranean Sea. I’m three years away from when most people start thinking about retiring. Though retirement is the farthest thing from my mind. My mother used to ask me when I was going to retire. I’m not sure why she asked. She worked until she was 80. I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t hunt, fish, or play golf. I work in restaurants and host tour groups. My work is my hobby. My work is my fun, and it’s worth doing. I am overly blessed and grateful.

Onward.

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